Professor Ben Rickayzen is the Head of the Actuarial Science Faculties at City University and Cass Business School.
He graduated with a Maths degree from Nottingham University and joined the then consulting firm of Bacon & Woodrow (now part of Aon Hewitt). Whilst there his best client was the Royal Household Pension Scheme and he attended meetings in Buckingham Palace.
He joined the City University in 1994 where became Head of the Faculty in 2008. His research is focused on care for the elderly and its funding, as well as obesity.
He enjoys chess, Sudoku and spending time with his three sons.
Jasmine and Mufadzi interviewed Professor Rickayzen recently.
Professor Rickayzen, we noticed you studied Mathematics at the University of Nottingham. At what point did you decide you wanted to be an actuary and why did you decide to do Maths?
I'm unusual in that I wanted to be an actuary early on in my life. We had friends whose daughter was an actuary and I was intrigued as to what her job was. I always loved Maths, it was the only subject I could do. When I was about 15 she was a qualified actuary and I spoke to her about her work. The use of mathematics, probability and statistics, investment works, etc., intrigued me. All these sounded like good things to be involved in. At that time, I decided that I probably would want to become an actuary, but obviously you never know.
After you left university, you went to work for Bacon & Woodrow, a consulting firm. What led to the decision to go to a consulting firm rather than, let's say, and insurance house?
That's an interesting question. Obviously, I had never worked in either. Work experience was never really done in those days. It was a very different environment to now. I didn't know what each would be. However, I did speak to actuaries about the differences. People generally said that when working in an insurance company, the work you did was more predictable and possibly less interesting. But, you get through the exams because it'd give you more time to leave the office on time.
Whereas, being in consultancy, it would be more exciting, but you might be slightly less in control of your workload. I knew, and it's still true today, that getting the first job is the hardest thing. It wasn't as if I was particularly targeting a consultancy over an insurance company. So, as it happens, I went to work at Bacon & Woodrow.
Did you enjoy your time there?
Yes, very much. I'll tell you the interview process because it compares with what you have now. Two partners at Bacon & Woodrow interviewed me for an hour. Afterwards I was interviewed by HR for about an hour. Then I was taken out to lunch by a trainee actuary who would no doubt report back on me, saying that I could use my knife and fork correctly.
The next day I received a job offer through the post. I didn’t have to go through all the psychometric tests, or anything else that you have now. It was a completely different world. That kind of puts in context what was going on in 1984.
When the clients asked you questions, you'd have to jump right to it. You'd have to answer whatever they'd wanted and they were interested in, which wouldn't necessarily be the thing that I would be interested in doing. Also, you might be dropping everything like a study day to answer the questions that very day or the next day. It just meant that everything was just a bit uncertain.
The best client I had was the Royal Household Pension Scheme, covering everybody who worked for The Queen. We used to have meetings at Buckingham Palace. I went about a dozen times to Buckingham Palace. There was nothing better than sitting in a black cab and saying, "Buckingham Palace, please."
While you were at Bacon & Woodrow, you were also studying for your exams to qualify as an actuary. Were there 15 exams back then just like it is today?
No, there were ten exams. You had six early exams that were equivalent to CT1 to CT8. CT9, Business Awareness, didn't exist. They were slightly different subjects. The one big difference is we didn't have Financial Economics. You had four later subjects, which were compulsory. That was Life, General, Pensions and Investment. You'd have to take one of those subjects to the specialist level and the other three at kind of a normal level. I took Pensions at the specialist level. That's ten exams to do, and the specialist level was the Fellowship paper.
Which exams did you find particularly difficult or easy?
I always had problems with the first set of exams I ever took for anything: at school, university, anything. It was always a disaster, even if I worked incredibly hard. In my first year in doing my exams, I was doing the equivalent of CT1 and CT5, which was the absolute standard combination in those days that got you underway. I managed to fail both of those.
I kind of knew that was going to happen. It was something about how my brain operates, I had to get used to a first set of exams. So, obviously, that was a disastrous start. As it happens, I'm now a major examiner for CT1 - clearly, I understood the course. I [also] needed to re-sit the General Insurance exam once and the Pensions exam once.
How did you balance your studies, work and having a life outside of work?
I knew from early on, from having spoken to actuaries, that to some extent I would have to put social life on hold. It was the first time I'd ever lived in London, so I did actually manage to have something of a social life.
But, I actually spent a lot of time concentrating on the exams. Typically, I'd get one day of study leave, so I'd be working at home. I chose a Wednesday. I'd be working the evenings of the other four days. On a Saturday and Sunday, I would probably be putting in about four hours each day. On a Wednesday, I'd be working all day. I wasn't doing the washing or anything.
In terms of study leave, I was absolutely studying. I played in the orchestra, so I made sure my study day was the day when there was orchestra in the evening. I chose a day where there might have been an evening event, because you can't just work morning, afternoon and evening productively. That was what kept the social life going. Also, I was a key chess player, so I factored that in as well.
You mentioned that you specialised in Pensions. Why did you choose Pensions?
It chose me. In those days, the big areas to be in, and this shouldn't surprise you, were Pensions and Life Insurance. To put it in context, there was no Investment department at Bacon & Woodrow, or anywhere. Bacon & Woodrow were one of the first to set one up and that was with two people. That was about 1986 or 1987. There was no Investment specialist work going on, it was a very unusual thing to do.
They had only just developed the General Insurance exam and there were virtually no general insurance actuaries around. When I was doing the General Insurance exam, I was lucky enough to be put in a tutorial group to help study support with a qualified General Insurance actuary. That was quite unusual, but he was very useful as a tutor for this subject. It gives you an idea of how General Insurance was yet to develop. It has obviously taken off since then.
You did mention your family has a lot of academics. Fast forward to ten years later to your decision to move from Bacon & Woodrow to get into academia. What thought process went into that?
There were a few factors. One was that the workload was unbalanced from my point of view. I think I found it quite unsettling never being in control of my workload or questions I'm being asked to do. I certainly liked the idea of teaching and research. I didn't really know what it would be like because I hadn't done it yet so, the teaching definitely appealed. I think that was in the blood.
The other thing's that, this was the early 90's, the world had changed then. We were in a recession. It was a much harder place to be. It wasn't just at Bacon & Woodrow; it was at all the companies. There was always the threat of redundancy. You'd have to fully justify all your fees and charges and how you spent your time to your client because the client, at that stage, was always querying the fees. It proved to be a good decision.
What sort of things or skills did you learn while working in a consultancy that you still use till today?
The absolute first is, and I lecture on this as well, the reasonableness test. Not just producing models or mathematical equations or this or that and looking at the result. It's about standing back and looking at why the result is what it is.
I was also a team leader so I was managing teams. That didn't always go brilliantly. There was one particular person - a very shy person. It didn't matter how I approached her, whatever I said, she would always jump about ten feet in the air! We just didn't connect.
I had to learn how to deal with people. Obviously, in my team of about ten people there were many different personalities. Some we clicked with, some less so, but you've got to make the whole thing flow. I learnt an awful lot about how to be able to deal with different personalities, which was crucial.
You mentioned talking to junior members of staff today. What is your role today, apart from obviously teaching students?
I'm Head of the Faculty of Actuarial Science here and I have been for eight years. In the faculty there are 25 staff. One of my big roles is the senior management role of leading the direction of the faculty and controlling the workload of the faculty to make sure everybody is treated fairly in terms of the teaching they give and the other duties they're given. For example, being course director or admissions tutor, to make sure it's all fairly put on to different staff.
That's a huge aspect of what I do, the senior management role as well as being involved in the direction of the school itself. So, it's not just the faculty, I'm attached to the part we play in the school and also I'm on the executive committee of the school which means I'm in charge of the direction that Cass takes or their strategy and I enjoy that.
I teach. The interesting thing is that students would never realise, although we're called teachers and lecturers, actually a very small percentage of our time is spent teaching. I would say I teach courses that amount to about 110 hours a year, but if we were doing say a 35-hour week, that's about three weeks of teaching out of 52 weeks and people are thinking, “What are you doing for the rest of it?”.
Most people are not doing huge amounts of [teaching] because a lot of our time is spent on research. Apart from the management responsibility, which takes up probably two days out of five and teaching, there is research. My research interests are all to do with health - things particularly like how to care for the elderly, how to fund it.
I've also been involved in obesity research, measuring the years of life lost through being obese and what is the best obesity measure to use because it's actually not the BMI, it's the waist to height ratio. It's a much better measure that people should use, so we're trying to convince people how, at NICE, that that is a better measure to use. We quantify the years of life people lose through being obese either by BMI or waist to height ratio. It's a variety of research topics within health and that's where my PhD was as well.
Since qualifying as an actuary, have you done any further studies?
I started at Bacon and Woodrow in 1984, qualified in 1990 and then left to come to City University in 1994. During this time I was working on my PhD thesis, which I submitted in 2007. So that’s my further study if you like! I have been involved in research and I have published several papers as well over the last 20 odd years. The last exam I wrote was in 1990, which is such a relief!
What is the one piece of advice you would give to aspiring actuaries?
I do not have one particular piece of advice, but I will give several. In terms of employability, you need to be rounded. It’s not just about getting a good degree and getting your exemption, which is already expected. What makes you stand out is your story, what you have contributed apart from your studies during the last three or four years.
You need to be able to work in a team, as well as take the initiative to be a team leader. You can demonstrate these qualities by working for a charity, running societies and sport amongst other things. Having a first class degree on its own is not going to excite an employer. Communication skills are also very important.
In terms of being a good actuary, it is important to always apply the reasonableness test. You need to able to see whether what you have calculated makes sense, you cannot always be reliant on the computer. Clients are not always going to be that sophisticated in their knowledge so you need to able to explain and communicate your findings in a way they can understand.
You mentioned briefly before that you used to play in the orchestra and chess as well, what are your favourite hobbies?
I used play the violin in an orchestra however an illness a few years ago meant that I could not play anymore. I used to play chess as well at county level but because I had to do lots of theory before playing a game because I was playing at a high level, I eventually lost interest. But I do still love chess, but not playing competitively. I do enjoy Sudoku as well. I have three boys as well, so I would say they are my biggest hobby!
Do you have any exam tips for us?
Yes I do!
- Back when I was studying for my exams, I would study for 40 minutes and then take a break for 20 minutes listening to music on my iPod and then back on for 40 minutes. All day. This is how I studied for my Maths degree and actuarial exams.
- When you take the exam, if there are 180 minutes and 100 marks i.e. 1.8 minutes per mark you need to be disciplined enough to move on to the next question when time is up. I would actually advocate 1.5 minutes per mark so that you have half an hour at the end to go over your work and redo any questions you feel you can answer better.
- Always start with a question you can do. The psychological effect will be good for you, as it helps settle your nerves at the start of the exam.
- Use mark guide to work out how many points you should make.
- Remember to always state the obvious; this often gets you more marks than making some complex comments first.
- Do not panic.
- Practise the mock exams in timed conditions.
- Do not look at solutions too quickly when practising past papers, you need to have a good go at the question first and get the most out of it.
- Read a question at least three times before answering in order to avoid answering the wrong question.
We thank Professor Rickayzen for his interesting contribution to the development of actuaries.